2018: Post Numero Cinco

Why Mass Shootings Don’t Affect Gun Control Policy or Opinion

Guns Kill vs. People Kill: An Unproductive Discussion

Another mass shooting, this time in Florida’s Parkland High School, marking a Valentine’s Day massacre that left a nation with dozens of empty bullet shells and thousands upon thousands of shattered hearts. The victims change, the locations random, the death tolls rise, but the one constant in this death trend of ammosexual madness is the “guns don’t kill slogan.” Among all the riffraff that’s driving America to the brink of national insanity, or the symptoms of American democracy turning completely dysfunctional, stands a defiant piece of political rhetoric that aptly encapsulates the core disputes between two clashing worldviews.

Liberals tend to believe that people’s choices and behaviors are generally a product of their circumstances, and changing those circumstance will change people’s actions. A conservative would be more pessimistic about human nature and would think it’s difficult, and foolish, to tinker with circumstances; they would tend to believe what happens depends on how people choose to exercise their personal responsibility.

A liberal would see “guns don’t kill people” as an absurd line of logic, like saying “nukes don’t kill people, countries with nukes do.” Of course, but a B41 certainly helps. The gun issue is simple: If you stop permitting guns to float around, then people are less likely to shoot each other.

A conservative sees “guns don’t kill people” and would argue that if people want to kill each other, they will, so whether they have access to guns isn’t the issue, it’s the decisions that they make. They would point out that cars and knives kill, so banning them would be irrational as well. Instead of going after the means in which killers use to achieve their murderous ends, we should foster a culture of “life” through exhortation to better moral choices, à la religiously-derived norms (ahem, find Jesus).

The differences between liberals and conservatives can be framed by the five-factor tool used by psychologists — a set of five core personality traits: Openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. In 2015, Mark Mellman wrote about how personality can shape politics. Generally, liberals are more open to new experiences, novelty, disruption and are more tolerant of mess, ambiguity, and uncertainty. Conservatives prefer stability, tidiness, clarity, certainty, and the status quo.

The University of Nebraska’s John Hibbing, argues in this paper, based on a series of experiments, that conservatives display a strong “negativity bias.” NYU psychologist John Jost and colleagues were quoted in a 2014 Mother Jones article:

Given the rapid socio-political and technological shifts in America over the past decade, it’s no surprise that those on the American right who believe disarmament is impossible have bought into this NRA-propagated image that they’re bulwarks against a tyrannical new-world-order, that they need to stockpile weapons in preparation for some Anschluss into flyover country.

Picture a conservative gun owner, a 50-something-year-old white man living in the Rust Belt, and the order he was familiar with has crumbled under his feet. The American Dream has proven false. His purpose in the world left fragmented in a faltering assembly line; robbed of his manufacturing job, the relevancy of his cultural values, and the steady rise up the economic ladder that would provide a house, a yard, a car, a bigger slice of the apple pie.

It’s a bitter and helpless feeling for someone naturally attuned to order, structure, and certainty. But he’s taken solace in FOX News, Breitbart, and Facebook groups that appeal to his fist-shaking grievances. Images and stories of immigrants crowding in and taking the jobs and benefits promised to American workers; terrorists making a mockery of American leadership; elitists disdaining his beliefs. He’s convinced America’s decline is a sealed fate.

But he can draw the line at his door, on his private property, because he owns a gun. He’s given up a lot, but he won’t give up his autonomy or the safety of his family in an uncertain world.

If conservatives are to accept the liberal position on guns, they don’t just need to accept “common sense,” they have to surrender a core part of their world view. Compromising on gun control means compromising on conservatism.

To him, and many like-minded conservative gun owners, another mass shooting is not an argument for gun control, it’s a confirmation of their very instincts: To defend what’s left of their lifestyle. When schoolchildren, movie watchers, churchgoers, nightclub partiers, or country music lovers are shot and killed, it’s another sign of moral and societal decay, another reason to arm themselves and ensure they’re never left defenseless against government repression.

If the broad conservative take on the world’s problems stem from a pessimistic disposition, it shouldn’t be shocking when they offer few solutions after massacres. The gun debate has morphed into a bad faith game, and the politics of the situation has turned it into a full-throated culture war. That’s why the conversation after a grisly, high-profile mass shooting is predictable, ineffective, and ultimately just kabuki theater.

Marco Rubio caught a lot of flak for his response to the Parkland High School shooting — he stood on the Senate floor and said that most of the tougher gun restrictions that have been proposed wouldn’t have prevented it. To many gun control activists, he became another poster boy for congressional inaction on tougher gun regulations, another shill for the NRA who utters the “thoughts and prayers” platitude that’s become a staple of stock Republican talking points in these types of situations.

This is where liberals fall into this endless cycle of bickering with regurgitated tropes. That classic Onion article is shared, self-assured gun-control advocates yell about Australia until they’re blue in the face, and snarky tweets are posted to try to assure gun owners that not every incremental tightening of standards is a slippery slope to total confiscation.

Glenn Kessler from the Washington Post ran a fact check three years ago that examined every public mass shooting from Sandy Hook to December 2015, and determined that those shootings wouldn’t have been prevented by commonly-proposed gun laws. FiveThirtyEight’s Leah Libresco, who spent three months analyzing all 33,000 lives ended by guns each year in the US, arrived at a similar conclusion.

As Austin Frank points out, scary-looking assault rifles have become political low-hanging fruit because they’re the instrument of choice in some of the most gruesome and newsworthy mass shootings. But handguns are used in 87 percent of violent crimes, as the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council reports.

I think it’s nonsensical to justify non-military use for semi-automatic weapons, but, as Adam Gaffney points out in the Washington Post, a lot of discussion around guns is misleading, especially when it focuses on “assault weapons.” “Assault weapon” has become this invented catch-all classification that includes any semi-automatic that has two or more modifiable features, like a folding stock or a pistol grip, which any owner can add at home, as if they were snapping Legos together. We should talking about firepower — how deadly a given weapon is:

Libresco reports three groups who are most affected by gun violence:

None of the popularly floated policies are specifically tailored to prevent any of these scenarios. Better access to mental health care would help reduce the chance of someone successfully turning their suicidal thoughts into a grave finality, but Republicans seem more interested in using it as a convenient dodge to skirt public outcry than actually working to improve it. Men at risk of violence need to be identified — like New Orleans’ plan to use algorithms based on previous arrests and weapons seizures — before they take a life or lose theirs. If police prioritized women endangered by specific men, they can enforce restraining orders prohibiting these men from buying and owning guns.

The diversity of firearms used in recent high-profile massacres has made it hard to claim that reviving the Clinton-era assault weapons ban is a cure-all for preventing deadly sprees. James Holmes and Adam Lanza used high-powered rifles, but Nidal Hasan, Jiverly Wong, and Dylann Roof were all extremely deadly with pistols. Aaron Alexis was prevented from buying an assault weapon, so he marched into DC’s Navy Yard with a shotgun and killed a dozen people.

None of this is meant to justify inaction, it’s just evidence that our gun control problem spans constitutional law, economics, psychology, sociology, and criminology, and is far more complicated than simply enacting a firearms prohibition. A lot of the popularly floated policies are watered-down, too broad, and don’t address the specificity of the unique circumstances that cause different types of gun-related homicides and suicides.

When reporting on her findings, Libresco wrote:

Albert Hirschman summarized conservative arguments against reform as appeals to “perversity,” “futility,” or “jeopardy.”

Each one of these arguments is an attempt to justify the status quo and caution against trying to meddle with it, and we hear all of them in the gun debate:

This rhetoric is as appealing as it is cliché, because it’s frequently true: If reforms are proposed thoughtlessly by those who have encountered guns only as a figure in a briefing book or an image on the news, they can certainly be useless or damaging. Trade-offs are inevitable and when it comes to gun control, there are valid causes for concern, as Current Affairs editor-in-chief Nathan J. Robinson writes:

In a country with an estimated 270 to 310 million firearms in circulation, recognizing that “this won’t work” and “this will make things worse” are legitimate criticisms of gun control policy proposals. Debates over new laws should be driven by considerations of their consequences: We have to think about how the enforcement process of any given law will unfold.

The reason why conservatives, and President Trump, end up proposing insane ideas like arming teachers is because of the “Mexican standoff” thought experiment: The one person without a gun is the most vulnerable, so if you don’t want to get killed, arm yourself like everyone else. It’s safety through Mutually Assured Destruction, a self-defeating way to build a peaceful society. This could partially explain why gun sales in the US over recent years have historically spiked immediately after a mass shooting: 2 million guns were sold in the month following Sandy Hook while 1.6 million firearms were purchased in the aftermath of the San Bernardino massacre.

If the right’s position on guns is based on a cynical belief that proposed solutions won’t work, then it’s incumbent upon Democrats and gun control activists to craft better policy and to not allow this feeling of futility to resign ourselves to the inevitability of gun violence. It’s really a sign of liberal hubris coming to the fore: After decades of federal inaction, they’ve used smug insults as a sort of coping mechanism to distract themselves from their own political shortcomings in advancing effective gun control laws. The year is 2018 and Donald Trump is president and people are still getting shot en masse. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The following are three actions that have the highest likelihood of broad support:

The last is most important: Existing information is scattershot, and people cherrypick whatever statistic that fortifies their confirmation bias. And the experience in countries like Britain and Australia that have enacted heavily restrictive gun laws don’t prove much about what America’s policy should be: When you quantitatively measure cross-comparative crime statistics where the crime is not consistently defined (i.e., “mass shooting”), you usually end up with apples-to-oranges comparisons.

Gun violence is a uniquely American problem, and it necessitates a uniquely American solution. Having the CDC accurately diagnose gun violence and propose policy solutions specifically related to an American context would bridge the ambiguity between existing research and the reality of this situation.

Lastly, a cherished myth of American politics is that it’s fundamentally about persuasion, and in this instance, the next gruesome mass shooting in a rising tide of massacres will finally be the one that pushes conservatives to genuflect before “common sense” gun-control policy. But in a political system already biased against change, reforms will only come because the people who want it amass the political power to overwhelm the NRA, because they organize more intensity, money, and votes than their opponents. The passionate rallies in response to the Parkland shooting are an encouraging start.

In the meantime, whether you believe “guns kill people” or “people kill people,” every American should be seriously determined to figure out what kills people and what we can do to stop it.

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